Is this the beginning of the end for tuition fees (as we know them)?


The Higher Education Bill – currently passing through the hoops of parliamentary deliberation and approval – involves, for the first time, generating systematic data on graduates’ tax returns. The government sees this as leading one way, but I’m imagining (hoping) that something else might happen…


R.I.P. Tuition Fees, 1998-2018?

The data they’re going to collect means that we’ll be able to track clearly, for the first time, how graduates from different universities, having studied different subjects, fare financially over their working lives. The rationale behind this is an economic one – to establish, with greater precision, what ‘graduate premiums’ are – how much graduates earn based on what and where they study. This, the government hopes, will offer a stronger argument for universities to charge different rates for their degrees, something they’ve been trying to encourage for some time. The idea, you see, is that higher education is a market, and differences in quality should be reflected in differences in price. There are a lot of arguments as to why education isn’t/shouldn’t be a market, but I’ll save that conundrum for another day.

Plan A: The Price Range

The logic of matching tax returns and degrees works like this. Let’s say, for example, that a graduate from an elite university, over their working lifetime, earns an average of £60,000 a year, and one from a non-elite university £40,000. This provides a bona fide reason, they’ll argue, for elite universities to charge more because the degree is ‘worth more’. You can also drill down a little deeper and see that a degree in Finance leads to better earnings than a degree in Art History, so the Finance option should cost more. In short, highly-ranked universities should charge more (some of them are already pushing for this), and more lucrative degrees should be more expensive. The problem is, this doesn’t wash.

Firstly, there is no clear indication that an English degree from ‘Top University X’ is better than an English degree from ‘Mediocre University Y’. We have all sorts of comparisons and rankings that include differences in admission standards, student satisfaction, retention rates, research income and capacity, and so on. They’re also looking to measure teaching quality (which they can’t). As I’ve ranted regularly about rankings, these figures are based on proxies. In other words, they measure something ‘next to’ what they want to capture, and then pretend that they’ve actually captured it. The linking of tax records is essentially going to be doing the same thing, but from a different angle, as it will equate quality with with earnings.

Secondly, as I’ve written elsewhere, calculating the ‘price’ of a degree is problematic. UK universities currently all charge the same, at least for undergraduate (Bachelor) courses. There are several reasons for this:

  • The government has capped what you can charge for an undergraduate degree, currently £9000;
  • Universities are worried that charging a lower rate might make them look as if they’re lower quality (the same logic as luxury goods, interestingly);
  • Not all subjects cost the same to deliver. Currently the excess cash from cost-effective degrees (in humanities and social sciences) is used to support cost-intensive courses (in sciences);
  • Degrees in the same subject but at different universities, cost about the same to deliver;
  • More expensive courses/universities could become (even more) socially exclusive as poorer students feel forced to choose cheaper/less prestigious ones, not the ones they like/want to go to;

Plan B: The Demise of Fees?

We already know a little bit about what the future looks like for graduates. At the aggregate level, they are more likely to be employed, and to earn more over their lifetimes, than non-graduates. This is the main rationale for tuition fees, that you invest in your future earnings by going to university. The problem is that what you do – and how much you earn – after graduating can vary hugely. Overall, it is down a range of things, key of which are:

  • What you study;
  • Which university you go to;
  • Who you are;
  • How long you work for;
  • Luck (e.g. the state of the economy/labour market).

If you take a ‘perfect’ case, you’d be a posh, white, able-bodied male studying Engineering at Oxbridge. You get hoovered up by a City finance firm before you’ve even graduated, in part due to the status of your university, your numeric literacy and problem-solving skills, and how you talk/dress etc. It will also help that you rowed for your college, hiked up Kilimanjaro and rescued turtles in Indonesia on a gap year, and did a summer internship at an investment bank, courtesy of an uncle who works there. Your future will be almost immune how the economy is doing, you make big bucks and your tax returns for the next forty odd years are impressive – assuming you pay tax, of course!

This, of course, doesn’t represent many people at all. There is a great deal of unfairness here, particularly as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to study certain subjects and/or attend certain kinds of (i.e. ‘top’) universities. They then also pay a penalty on the labour market for having babies, being sick, working collegially rather than competitively, being the ‘wrong’ colour, having the ‘wrong’ kind of name, speaking with a regional accent, and/or simply living/graduating during an economic recession. The problem here is that most of this is known, but the evidence is piecemeal.

What the tax return data may do is definitively take the wool off our eyes, proving that the current numbers behind degrees simply don’t add up for most people. There are already indications of this because the rate of repayments for student loans is lower than predicted. The cynical among us might think that they knew this would happen and were overly optimistic to get the policy approved… Either way, we might be on the edge of blowing the lid off the whole thing, exposing the unfair and partially invisible financial and status divides that permeate our university system and job market. Maybe they’ll have to charge higher fees for wealthier students, although I can’t see that one washing through an election!

In the longer run, it’ll take years, even decades, to really understand what’s going on in relation to degrees and earnings, and there’s no guarantee that whoever is in government won’t cherry-pick the data to show what they want it to. But if the data was publicly available, and we can see dimensions such as gender, ethnicity, social background, dis-/ability, and the state of the economy, this could be a powerful resource for positive change. Wishful thinking? Watch this space!

Posted in Access to Uni, Employability, Rankings, Student Loans, Tuition Fees | Leave a comment

Who gets hurt the most by BrHExit – Brexit and Higher Education?

The UK’s uneasy divorce from the European Union rumbles on, complex, messy, partisan and accusatory, and from different perspectives unwilling or overdue. What are the implications of Brexit for higher education (HE) or, as it’s been termed. ‘BrHExit’?


‘Sorry, we can’t work with you two…and you back there? Seeya!’

The headlines to this are that ‘we’ stand to lose out on three different levels:

  • Our ability to attract EU research funding;
  • Fewer students from across the EU;
  • Inability to recruit or retain academics from other EU countries.

We still don’t know what the overall outcomes will be, and the long-term effects will still be unravelling decades from now, while the architects of the whole sorry mess are publishing lucrative memoirs from the comfort of their country piles. We could get back in, stay out under more or less favourable conditions, or be out and excluded entirely, and so on. The shorter term sees a vacuum of detail filled with uncertainty and conjecture, creating angst and hysteria across the political spectrum. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re worried.

In UK HE in the nearer future, it is the universities at the top of the pile, those best-ranked (for what that tells us), who look to have the most to lose. They have, for some time, done the most/best research and garnered the most UK and international research money. This is a chicken-and-egg situation, as you need the money to do the work, and you can’t get it unless you’re good. If they lose access to that – and are in turn less able to attract the brightest scholars/researchers from overseas – then their stars begin to wane. This may also mean that they lose a great deal of prestige in international rankings and their potential future international students increasingly head elsewhere. (It makes it harder for British citizens to work/study elsewhere, too.)

This could then have a further negative impact on our image as a country because the strength/quality of ‘top’ universities is seen as crucial for the international marketing of ‘Brand UK’. The knock-on effect of lesser status (and potentially unfriendly student and work visas) could hit UK HE really hard. Much of the focus has been about the loss of (literally) billions of pounds of research and tuition fees and what foreign students spend while studying here. This is all undeniably true, but detracts from the greater social and academic loss in that we do less research, mixing with less people and sharing ideas less. Why did nobody mention culture, solidarity and collaboration in the referendum campaign?!!!

Not all universities are as invested in (or reliant on) international funds or students, but it’s more pressing the further up the league tables you go. This doesn’t mean, though, that ‘lesser’ institutions are insulated from the joys of BrHExit. It could mean that the top dogs focus even more of their appetites and capacities on the domestic market. One of the features of research funding in the UK is that there is an oligopoly, of a few major players dominating the scene: the ‘Golden Triangle’ (London, Oxford, Cambridge) gobbles up a huge proportion of the funding available. This is partly, as I’ve mentioned before, because they’re good at doing research, but also the biggest universities have teams of people who are expert at writing winning bids. This puts them at a double advantage, and the rest – elite or otherwise – might end up scrabbling over ever smaller crumbs.

In terms of students, one of the features of the past few years is that universities in the UK have been able to expand their admissions as much as they like, and the presence of high tuition fees has made this a more attractive option. Whether they have the capacity to house and effectively teach those students is one thing, but if they do increase that capacity and then quickly lose large chunks of their international students(20% or more), who’s going to fill those classrooms, labs and fancy new student flats? Are those big players simply going to cut their losses and offload talented staff and new facilities (that they took out long term loans on)? Maybe, but maybe not.

The ‘better’ universities are also more attractive to employers, and this in turn makes them more attractive to students who nowadays have to think about the best ways of paying off their enormous student loans. Employability is one measure of rankings, and self-fulfils as I’ve written about before. Compounding this issue further, there are signs that the number of people going to university might be shrinking. This is then exacerbated by the fact that there is due to be a growing presence of private, for-profit universities. They are looking to muscle in, maybe with shorter courses and lower fees, and will largely focus on professional courses where the costs are low and returns on fees for students are more obvious. The universities at the bottom find themselves in a bind, particularly in less obviously employable subjects such as Humanities and Social Sciences. Do they reduce the ‘prices’ of their degrees (which may not necessarily cost less to provide) to attract students, and/or relax access just to get enough bums on seats?

What may happen is that we start to see some universities ‘failing’ – closing down. This is unheard of in UK higher education, although the current government sees this as a ‘natural and healthy’ feature of markets. It may mean, though, that some areas lose what can be big local employers and access to certain (or even all) kinds of degree for their working class communities. If these are in the most disenfranchised areas – and populated by those who largely voted Leave – then social mobility in those areas may fall even further unless something is done to provide them with better opportunities.




Posted in Employability, International Students, Rankings, Student Loans | Leave a comment

New University Ranking – The Alpha Beta


Is your university due a name change? Aardvark University, anyone?

The most recent addition to the panoply of UK university rankings, the Alpha Beta Ranking, was launched today. Aberdeen is ranked 1st, while Cambridge and Oxford, who usually fight tooth and nail for the top spot, languish in 30th and 105th respectively – previously unknown territory for them. For the full ranking, see below.

The author of the ranking, Dr Richard Budd from Liverpool Hope University (ranked 82nd), said, ‘we monitor virtually everything in universities nowadays, from publications to toilet breaks and paper – not toilet paper – usage, even how often students access their Virtual Learning Environments. This information is used to guide decision-making by senior management. Ranking universities alphabetically, as we have done here, is perhaps the last unmined source of ranking data available once the TEF is implemented, and it raises some interesting questions. For example, York St John languishes in last place (163rd) only one place away from its closest neighbour, the University of York. This reflects a geographical clustering of universities in the data that might require further analysis.’

The effect of this new ranking on the sector remains to be seen. We may see a flurry in universities, towns and cities being renamed, or even entire universities relocated. The University of Surrey could move to the nearby Aaron’s Hill and change its name accordingly, which would instantly move it to first place. It may have to do so quickly as there is another Aaron’s Hill in Somerset which the University of Bath could lay claim to. Any changes would, of course, incur significant costs in rebranding, new website URLs and so on, and the requirements in terms of internal paperwork alone are staggering. This new method of ranking could be incorporated by others and may even be copied internationally. This would no doubt result in a rise in the visibility of Abilene Christian University in the US, while the prestigious Zhejiang University in China experiences some status slippage.


Okay, so there is clearly a generous portion of The Onion in all of this. However, if we accept that university rankings are somewhat arbitrary, and also that they have a powerful effect on the way that universities are run (and therefore how students and academics behave), then there is an important point here. I know I’ve written about this before, but this I daren’t leave my spoof article up there without a disclaimer – someone might take it (or me) seriously!

On the point of arbitrariness, rankings are based on a particular model of university. If you start with what people think the best universities are and use them as the ideal, then you are automatically disadvantaging everyone else. The ‘top’ universities tend to be old, wealthy, large, and very hard to get into (for both students and staff). Age is simply a question of chance – the longer a university has been in operation, the longer it has had to make mistakes, to develop and grow. There is a ranking for ‘younger’ (‘under 50’) universities, but this fudges the point that newer starters are instantly and often permanently disadvantaged. Similarly, money isn’t everything, older universities have endowments, and different subjects require more or less money to teach and research. This means that the subject profile of an institution grossly distorts the numbers without any reflection how good it may be. At the same time, being small and inclusive can carry significant advantages that don’t come across in rankings, not least in terms of developing a sense of a shared community or the social justice aspect of providing a university education for people who may not have done well at school. As I’ve written about before, ‘ability’ is a tricky thing to capture, and there are all sorts of reasons why people don’t leave school with the grades they are potentially capable of, and do and don’t study

Secondly, rankings change how universities behave, in that doing well – better – on the league table can become more important than what it is trying to capture. It becomes about gaming the system, not improving practice, and the emphasis in competition (which is what rankings foster) is on speed, which can engender haste. If your ranking criteria include the proportion of students who get high grades, this is useful if it genuinely reflects the quality of teaching. It could mean that universities improve their teaching and assessment to ensure that students develop as much as possible and score highly. However, this can be a long-term project, and the shorter term solutions are to make assessments easier and/or to inflate grades on an institution-wide basis. I wrote recently about the problems of using retention or drop-out as a measure of teaching quality. To add to this, in the UK the drop-out numbers only count from the 1st of December each academic year, which strikes me as an altogether random date, and might encourage universities to identify and jettison struggling students before that point. The better option is to look at ways of ensuring students have the best opportunity to thrive, and if they drop out through no fault of their own (or of the university), then so be it. Not every university or subject is everyone’s cup of tea, and you can only get so much sense of what uni will be like before you really start. Measures of research quality are equally problematic. The volume of research publications, for example, can encourage ‘salami slicing’, where academics publish a set of similar papers rather than one or two really good ones. There are measures of publication quality, but these are, again, problematic. Every measure you look at has the opportunity to be ‘gamed’, and because rankings can be seen as so important – every university cherry-picks the figures from whichever ranking suits them – this gaming is inevitable.

Having said all of this, rankings are an interesting academic exercise, and the data (and discussions) they generate are certainly useful in many ways. The data, when used judiciously, can be used to identify genuine problems that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. There are also non-academic rankings, such as sustainability, or another one for the social life of the campus. Overall, though, rankings are based on flawed measures and, if we misread them, or accept them uncritically, then any associated changes in practice may be for the worse. The attractiveness of using the easily measurable is that the data collection is straightforward. The big problem is that the validity of the measure may not be good, and this gets forgotten. You can make them more and more complex, and more and more nuanced – which is good – but we always have to have disclaimers on them.


Anyway, for those of you who are still reading/interested, here’s the the Alpha Beta University Ranking in full. It  includes all ‘recognised bodies’ – organisations in the UK entitled to award their own degrees.

Ranking University
1 University of Aberdeen
2 Abertay University (formerly University of Abertay Dundee)
3 Aberystwyth University (Prifysgol Aberystwyth)
4 Anglia Ruskin University
5 Anglo-European College of Chiropractic
6 Archbishop of Canterbury, The
7 Arden University (formerly known as Resource Development International)
8 Ashridge Business School
9 Aston University
10 Bangor University (Prifysgol Bangor)
11 University of Bath
12 Bath Spa University
13 University of Bedfordshire
14 Birkbeck, University of London
15 University of Birmingham
16 Birmingham City University
17 University College Birmingham
18 Bishop Grossteste University
19 University of Bolton
20 Arts University Bournemouth
21 Bournemouth University
22 BPP University
23 University of Bradford
24 University of Brighton
25 University of Bristol
26 British School of Osteopathy, The
27 Brunel University London
28 University of Buckingham
29 Buckinghamshire New University
30 University of Cambridge
31 Canterbury Christ Church University
32 Cardiff Metropolitan University (Prifysgol Metropolitan Caerdydd)
33 Cardiff University (Prifysgol Caerdydd)
34 University of Chester
35 University of Chichester
36 City University London
37 Coventry University
38 Cranfield University
39 University for the Creative Arts
40 University of Cumbria
41 De Montfort University
42 University of Derby
43 University of Dundee
44 Durham University
45 University of East Anglia
46 University of East London
47 Edge Hill University
48 University of Edinburgh, The
49 Edinburgh Napier University
50 University of Essex
51 University of Exeter
52 Falmouth University
53 University of Glasgow
54 Glasgow Caledonian University
55 University of Gloucestershire
56 Glyndŵr University (Prifysgol Glyndŵr)
57 Goldsmiths, University of London
58 University of Greenwich
59 Guildhall School of Music and Drama
60 Harper Adams University
61 Heriot-Watt University
62 University of Hertfordshire
63 Heythrop College, University of London
64 University of the Highlands and Islands
65 University of Huddersfield
66 University of Hull
67 Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (also known as Imperial College London)
68 Institute of Education, University of London
69 Keele University
70 University of Kent
71 King’s College London
72 Kingston University
73 University of Central Lancashire
74 Lancaster University
75 University of Leeds
76 Leeds Beckett University (formerly Leeds Metropolitan University)
77 Leeds College of Art
78 Leeds Trinity University
79 University of Leicester
80 University of Lincoln
81 University of Liverpool
82 Liverpool Hope University
83 Liverpool John Moores University
84 University of London
85 London Business School
86 London Institute of Banking and Finance, The
87 London Metropolitan University
88 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
89 London School of Economics and Political Science, The (LSE)
90 London South Bank University
91 University College London
92 Loughborough University
93 University of Manchester
94 Manchester Metropolitan University
95 Middlesex University
96 NCG
97 Newcastle University
98 Newman University, Birmingham
99 University of Northampton, The
100 Northumbria University Newcastle
101 Norwich University of the Arts
102 University of Nottingham
103 Nottingham Trent University
104 Open University, The
105 University of Oxford
106 Oxford Brookes University
107 Plymouth University
108 University of Portsmouth
109 Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
110 Queen Mary, University of London
111 Queen’s University Belfast
112 University of Reading
113 Regent’s University London
114 Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen
115 University of Roehampton
116 Royal Academy of Music
117 Royal Agricultural University
118 Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London)
119 Royal College of Art
120 Royal College of Music
121 Royal College of Nursing
122 Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
123 Royal Holloway, University of London
124 Royal Northern College of Music
125 Royal Veterinary College, The
126 University of Salford
127 School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
128 University of Sheffield
129 Sheffield Hallam University
130 University of South Wales (Prifysgol De Cymru)
131 University of Southampton
132 Southampton Solent University
133 University of St Andrews
134 St George’s, University of London
135 University of St Mark and St John, Plymouth
136 St Mary’s University, Twickenham
137 Staffordshire University
138 University of Stirling
139 University of Strathclyde
140 University Campus Suffolk
141 University of Sunderland
142 University of Surrey
143 University of Sussex
144 Swansea University (Prifysgol Abertawe)
145 Teesside University
146 Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
147 University of the Arts, London
148 University College of Estate Management
149 University of Ulster
150 University of Law, The
151 University of Wales (Prifysgol Cymru)
152 University of Wales Trinity Saint David (Prifysgol Cymru Y Drindod Dewi Sant
153 University of Warwick
154 University of the West of England, Bristol
155 University of West London
156 University of the West of Scotland
157 University of Westminster
158 University of Winchester, The
159 University of Wolverhampton
160 University of Worcester
161 Writtle University College
162 University of York
163 York St John University
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An educational test which is immune to education? They must be joking…except they’re not.


They’re looking for a pot, except the pot’s a crock.

Let’s start with a general knowledge quiz:

How many secretaries of state for education (i.e. Ministers for Education) in the UK in the last fifteen years have professional (and not just personal) experience of school? One. The rest have been, prior to entering parliament, an accountant, a lawyer, a journalist, a political scientist, a trade unionist, an economist, and a local government councillor. I’m not saying that they’re clueless by any stretch of the imagination, but none of them are educational experts. Yes, I know, experts are not really the ‘in thing’ in our supposed post-truth society, but I’m still partial to People That Actually Know Things About Stuff. We have a situation where People Making Big Decisions about actually teaching pupils/students almost invariably don’t have much/any experience of what the job really entails. Genius. We might see these ministers, then, as People Who Pretend They Know About Stuff But Don’t.

One of those who seems to a pretending type is a slightly more junior education minister – like his boss, he’s an accountant. He was in the papers recently saying that we really need a test that you can’t train people to pass. He’s digging himself a hole here. The background to this is that the government is seeking to resuscitate a more or less dead donkey known as the ‘grammar school’. Grammar schools were supposed to offer a more rigorous, university-oriented, education. You had to take a test called an ’11+’, and those who did well got superiority complexes and places in grammars, went to top universities, and ruled the country/world alongside (or slightly below) those who’d been to private schools. The rest were sent off to ‘comprehensive schools’, with inferiority complexes, in time to be ruled by their ‘betters’. The idea was that children, regardless of background, had an equal opportunity to better themselves as the brightest rose to the top of the churn.

What actually transpired was that middle class parents were very good at playing the 11+ game, and rather than grammar schools selecting the brightest, they selected the best prepared. The figures show that the people who went to these schools almost invariably came from more affluent backgrounds. Unless you live in the Middle Ages and think that people are successful through the simple alchemy of natural ability and application, this grammar school thing doesn’t make sense. There is also a powerful but – strangely unpopular – argument that combining pupils of differing attainment in the same class helps everyone. This is because the pupils who understand something might be able to explain it to their peers and would clarify their own thoughts in the process.

Anyway, apart from a handful of bastions to inequality, grammar schools were closed or converted to regular schools some time ago. Why the current government want to bring it back from the (almost) dead is beyond me. One argument is that they’re trying to restore The Good Old Days, when actually it’s widely accepted that those days were pretty crap. Perhaps, as someone wittily pointed out in the Twittersphere recently, this policy is largely supported by those who are struggling to afford private fees.


So this is where we come back to the tutor-free test. It may look like I’ve gone on a bit of a meander, but you can see that the background is important. Just about everyone who knows anything about grammar schools has pointed out that they’re socially regressive. Really, I’ve not seen a single sensible expert being in support of this policy. Every way you crunch the numbers, it’s a dead end. So the Minister is looking for an 11+ that identifies the brightest, regardless of background – they’re dreaming up an escape clause that justifies their idiocy. Nothing out there supports our policy? Really, nothing? Okay, let’s invent something. The problem is, they’re trying to invent something which can’t exist.

What he’s basically looking for is a test of education that is immune to any form of education. When you put it like that, it looks silly, right? People thought they’d ‘found’ this when they first devised IQ tests, and within a short space of time they’d identified (or so they thought) that Afro-Caribbeans were less intelligent than whites. In fact they were just being racist and/or socially blind – it’s just that whites were more likely to have had the kinds and/or levels of education that enabled them to negotiate IQ tests.

This all  connects  with one of the most problematic words in education – ability. The problem is, there is so much that gets in the way of identifying what someone’s ‘true ability’ might be, that we can’t be sure that there is such a thing. Who you’re taught by and how, what individual school cultures are like, your home environment, your neighbourhood, how you’re seen/treated by others, what you eat, the state of the economy, and so on – all of this adds ‘noise’ to the signal of what our natural ability might be. We might be able to accept that some have mental talents in the same way as physical ones, but at the same time, for anyone to reach the top takes time and the right support. A lot of people try and don’t make it for all sorts of reasons, and a lot of people out there simply aren’t given the chance. Some people aren’t very good but are still successful, so the whole ability thing is a bit of a mess, really!

So they want a test which you can’t game. It makes sense at first glance, but not at all beyond that. As soon as you devise any test, people will pull it apart and see how it works. You need to do this to look for faults and improvements – that’s the nature of testing. Unless there is some kind of biological measure of ability (like midochlorians), any form of testing is always going to be something you can train for – or cheat. As we’ve seen over the last few years, even the most stringent tests can be sidestepped, as Volkswagen or the Russian Ministry of Sport, among others, have proven time and time again. You can’t take society out of education (or education out of society), and you can’t take education out of an educational test. What we really need is appropriate investment in education that gives people more equal opportunities. In order to do this, you need people making educational policy who know what they’re talking about. Even if the policy-makers aren’t experts themselves, they should at least be listening to (and incorporating) the views of People That Actually Know Things About Stuff, rather than forging ahead blindly with ideas that have little relationship with the reality. Controversial, I know…

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Are high student drop-out rates a sign of high or low quality?

My absence from the blogosphere has been enforced by the start of the new academic year: courses to run, classes to teach, new names to learn, bureaucratic kinks to iron out. It’s been a breathless few weeks.


Someone’s heading home. But why?

Today I’m turning my pen/keyboard to student drop-out rates, or from the other side of the coin, retention or ‘degree completion’ – those who start uni and don’t finish it. It may seem like an odd topic to write about at the beginning of the year, but I’ve been mulling this one over for several months. It comes up at conferences, contributes to some rankings, and universities talk about it internally. It’s becoming a hot topic, not least because it may feature in some way on the impending Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that will ‘measure’ the standards of teaching in every university in the UK.

I’m continually struck by the fact that, in the UK, drop-out is seen almost universally as a Very Bad Thing. Of course, in our era of vanishing state funding for students and rising tuition fees, universities take a hit on the bottom line whenever a student fails to finish their degree. Those students are also saddled with a debt and no qualification. However, what concerns me here is that high drop-out/low retention rates are often taken as a reflection of poor teaching quality – that students only drop out if you’re not engaging them and supporting them in their studies, an assumption that is a huge, often unjustified, leap.

Anecdotally, two of my tutorial students last year were enjoying the course, were enthusiastic in class and scoring well, but came to realise that they wanted to study something else and/or live closer to home. There was no sense that they were unhappy with the teaching or university more broadly, or that we’d misled them about the course in any way. It just hadn’t worked out, and I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, have tried to persuade them to stay. After a frank discussion of the pros and cons of leaving us and going ahead with what they were planning, I agreed that they were probably better off trying something else, and wished them well. There’s nothing wrong with going to university, giving it a go, and deciding that the course, university, lifestyle, or city are simply not your thing.

On the national level, there is some evidence that retention is better at high status universities. We might think that this is because their teaching is better, but there’s no evidence for this unless we take that blind leap of faith. It may be more connected with the observation that students at high status universities tend to come from middle class backgrounds. They are therefore, as a group, more culturally prepared for university at home and school, would almost certainly have taken an academic rather than vocational entry route, and experience less of a shock at the change in teaching culture. They are also better off, so financial concerns are less prevalent. Universities in the middle to bottom half of rankings tend to recruit more students from less affluent backgrounds who are more likely to have financial concerns and be less culturally and academically prepared for university. They will also have lower grades, on the whole, so might lack in intellectual confidence but not necessarily ability. What we might see in the TEF, though, if it is heavily weighted towards retention rates, is that the highly ranked universities will look better simply by dint of who they recruit. This would suit those already at the top on other measures, of course, but it would be a travesty that unfairly widened the status divides.

It is illustrative to compare retention in the UK with the way that it is seen in countries like Belgium and Germany. There, high drop-outs rates are a mark of a high quality, of strong academic rigour. Courses are set up to be very difficult and those who make the cut and complete it earn a cachet. The countries that apply this ‘alternative’ logic have open admissions systems, so almost anyone can study any subject provided they have reasonable upper secondary qualifications. Courses are often hugely oversubscribed at the beginning, and relatively low levels of support and hard exams are a way of winnowing down the numbers, perhaps inequitably in some cases. In the UK, admission numbers are controlled, we admit those who we think can cope with the course intellectually, and there is usually a good deal of academic support. The comparison in some ways is therefore not altogether fair, but it is interesting to see how the principle is applied ‘in reverse’ in some countries. We should not be making courses easy in the interests of retaining students, but at the same time not set most of them up for a fall, either. Studying for a degree is very much about developing, and struggling with the course material forms a foundation stone of that development. There must be a balance between support, standards, and rigour, but how that balance is established clearly varies between countries.

It may be true that teaching has taken a back seat to research in the UK status game, and in some senses a renewed focus on it can only benefit students and the sector more generally. But it should be remembered that most academics in the UK are qualified to teach in HE and are committed to teaching well. There are also internal mechanisms such as staff-student liaison committees which can raise issues in provision that departments can then address. In the event that teaching is poor and it causes people to leave, then this is clearly an issue, but at the moment we don’t know the extent of the problem, or whether there is even a problem at all. There is an argument that TEF is an expensive and pointless exercise, but the suspicion is that it is more about trying to enforce more of a market culture into UK HE than genuinely trying to drive standards up.

Either way, what is missing at the moment is detailed information – sectorally or within universities – as to why students drop out. Unless we collect this data, raw retention rates run the risk of falling into the same category as most other numerical measures of relative status – a weak proxy. The problem is though, over time, people tend to forget that these are crude measures, and retention will become – wrongly – synonymous in public perception as an accurate reflection of teaching quality.

Posted in Access to Uni, Rankings | 2 Comments

Confessions of a new lecturer, Volume 2: Reflecting on the first year.


This year’s casualties – all the things I’ve not read!

I’ve been a lecturer for just under a year now, and it’s been mostly fun and interesting, and sometimes challenging. As I wrote last time, a few things early on surprised me, such as how intellectually dependent first year students can be and how much admin there is. The former has meant that I’ve adapted my teaching over the year to slowly take the training wheels off their thinking and assignment writing. The latter is simply part of working in a bureaucracy – some of it is necessary and some of it certainly isn’t, but you just have to do it.

A professor I know quite well told me before I started this job not to expect to achieve anything in the first year beyond getting through it. In hindsight, this was pretty accurate – the combination of teaching a lot of new classes, unfamiliar roles and responsibilities, and completing a postgrad certificate – is probably more than enough for a year. I’ve managed to go a little a bit beyond that: reviewed a few papers and a pile of conference submissions, published one major paper and had another rejected (both were mostly complete before I got here), wrote and published one minor paper, delivered a conference poster and a seminar talk, had two conference proposals accepted, and won some internal funding for a research project which is now under way. I’ve managed to attend a few seminars here and there, too – getting off campus and mixing with colleagues from elsewhere stops you going stir-crazy. Maybe all of this has meant other things have suffered…

What has really fallen by the wayside this year is my capacity to read (and write). Oh, how I yearn to return to the first year of my PhD (if not not financially)! The pile of must-read articles and books relating to papers I’m writing or projects I’m working on is growing and growing. I’ve read the bare minimum this year – pre-reading for sessions I’ve designed and/or taught, some key articles for funding/conference applications, and literature for assignments on the PGCert. The only time I’ve managed to go beyond that is on the occasional long distance train journey. This has to be better next year – I feel like I’m falling further and further behind, and you can’t rely on work published up to 2014 for publications!! The knock-on effect is that I have several papers in various stages of development that I’m struggling to get anywhere near.

I whinged a bit last time about the lack of space I had to dedicate to the postgrad certificate in teaching in HE. Completing it leads to fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), a sector-wide requirement for all new academic (teaching) staff in UK HE. The proportion of staff with HEA Fellowships is going to be made publicly available quite soon, and you also have to factor in that the National Student Survey is supposed to reflect teaching quality. In other words, this is a big deal. Some universities (particularly those which are heavily research-oriented) may have let this slide over time, and everyone is now hell-bent on getting new (and old) teaching staff onto the HEA’s books. There’s an argument that says asking universities to be top-notch in their teaching and research on current resourcing is too much. That’s the brief, though. It’s a research/discussion topic in its own right, but the upshot is that I have to get my fellowship. There is an alternative route for those with teaching experience and I probably could/should have taken this. I opted to take the course in the best interests of my teaching (and students!), but you need at least five to six weeks to attend the taught sessions, read around the topic, and then write sensible assignments. That time simply isn’t there. My assignments are rushed, the grades reflect that, and I’ve had relatively little time to really think about my teaching. It’s irksome to say the least.

My biggest surprises at the end of the year related to marking. First off, you have a month where you do pretty much nothing else but read and grade exams, essays, and research projects. It is, of course, part of the system that we grade work and do so fairly, and for the students who incorporate their feedback into future work, it’s an essential part of studying. There is, though, mountains of it, and in truth it sends you a bit mad for a time. You emerge at the end of it (the ‘Grading Zone’) like a bear from hibernation – a bit bleary-eyed and discombobulated! Secondly, quite a lot of students (in general, not just mine!) complain formally or informally about their grades. I heard things like ‘I did well on my previous pieces so this must be a mistake’, or ‘if this grade was better, it would lift my overall mark’. I often had to explain that, although grading assignments was not an exact science, we moderated each other’s marking to make sure that standards were evenly applied. Furthermore, past performance is not an automatic indication of future ones, and the unpalatable truth is almost certainly that the work simply wasn’t as good. It may not be what you wanted, but it’s what you did. (In other words, ‘It was a bit shit. Sorry. Please read your feedback and take it on board’.)

Looking ahead, I’m in a nice position where I can have quite a bit of say in what I’m doing next year. I’ll be taking on much of the same teaching again, as well as some new responsibilities like running the final year dissertation and looking at our publicity and recruitment. Wanting to do the same teaching again is partly because I won’t have to spend as much time preparing myself/the materials, but also because I want to be better at it than I was this year. It’s not that I think I did anything particularly badly, but I do want re-run the year in some ways and improve in a few areas. I’ve also managed to offload a couple of things, which is nice!

All in, I’m still loving it. There have been times in the last year when I was struggling to cope, but I suppose those are part and parcel of any job. You tend to get through them and on the odd occasion that things do go pear-shaped, hopefully you have an understanding boss and the situation is fixable. I find that getting along with people and being helpful creates a reciprocity and you bail each other out when needed. I also need to work on my time management skills. I’m my own worst enemy at times, trying to clear my desk to give myself a ‘free’ day or two to dedicate to research, reading and writing. Note to self – you’ll never clear your desk! I have to learn to just drop things for a time and only attend to the urgent enquiries; in practice, virtually nothing is urgent. My brief for this year is to teach better, be smarter with my time, and read and write more. My career depends on publications above all else, so I’d better crack on.

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Social Inequality is the bane of our education system. Am I right to be ashamed of myself?



Dare I show my face…?

I’m a sociologist of education, and anyone familiar with this area knows that the notion that we live in a meritocratic society is a myth. Rather than education being a golden ticket to social mobility, the most disadvantaged in our society are systematically held back in education, and in work. This has nothing to do with a lack of ability, but is a complex cultural/financial conundrum, slicing up in different ways across demographic dimensions, from class to gender, ethnicity to geography.

OfSted admits that the issue of class and educational outcomes ‘continues to be the most troubling weakness in our education system’. One striking outcome is that the poorest students are the least likely to go to university. If they do, they’re largely excluded from those universities that provide better or even exclusive routes into postgrad courses and the best jobs, and are also less aware of/able to access opportunities that improve their employability. Universities (out of social duty/under threat) are working on this by providing outreach, scholarships, favourable entrance requirements, and better student support. They could be doing more, particularly some of them, but they (and education more generally) can’t solve social inequality by themselves.

Undermining all of this is a policy landscape – largely under the smokescreen of austerity – that further marginalises the most vulnerable. The Conservatives, of course, still place the blame firmly on education – and families. In other words, they’re defending their success/affluence (attributing it to nothing but their own merit) by pointing the finger firmly away from where their responsibilities should lie. At times the futility of it all makes me want to scream or weep, but the more we know about it, the more we can find ways of improving the situation. It’s an uphill struggle as there’s the weight of a system to shift. I’ve been working in this area for a while, researching various aspects of it and I also teach it with passion. I have to admit, though, that at times I feel like the enemy within. I have a dirty secret, you see – I’m posh. There, I’ve said it. Admitting to your problem opens the path to the solution, some say. We’ll see.

In my ‘defence’, it wasn’t my choice, and I doubt if there was a conscious decision to send me to a private school, as that’s just ‘what one does’. I’m an army brat: my dad was an officer in the army (‘a Rupert’!), so it was expected/assumed that I’d be packed off to a private school, and it was mostly paid for by the state. I didn’t – as many do – go straight from school to a fancy university and stay in the system, and I haven’t always had professional level jobs. I’ve worked nights, washed pots, worked in retail and catering, on building sites, and did all sorts of assorted temping work. I’ve worked in outreach through social services, too. I’m certainly not denigrating these jobs, and doing them has taught me a home truth or two. It took me a few years to get a well-paid job; I did that for a while before quitting to travel and then go back to university. At times I’ve been hard up (but nothing near this), and my family helped out (not infrequently) when it was needed. Without them, far less of what I’ve done would have been feasible, or at least getting here would have been far, far harder than it already was. In other words, I’ve had every chance to get to wherever I wanted to go. A lot of – most – people don’t have that.

My poshness is the result of my own unfair advantage and in some ways works against me. First off, I should probably check my privilege. However, you don’t have to be disabled to work in disability studies; you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist, either. In terms of the latter, I’m not, and I am. But in what way am I qualified – other than on paper – to pass comment? Would I be better, and more eligible to work in this field, if I’d been discriminated against, rather than for? I’d be less likely to be where I am, and I’d certainly be even angrier about inequality. What is central here, though, is that I don’t project my experience or expectations onto what is researched and published/publicised. It is up to me to listen to others, to not marginalise anyone else’s perspectives. After all, I ‘know’ nothing of this except what I’ve seen, heard and read – I’ve not lived it. In a sense the job at hand is to find out as much as we can, shout it from the rooftops, and try to redress the imbalance. I’m trying to, in as many ways as I can find.

A second, less important, dimension to all of this is that it sharpens my sense of imposter syndrome, the fear I’m a dullard masquerading as an intelligent academic. Not only am I posh, but I’m from the most privileged educational group of all: white, male, able, and for eleven years an inmate of our proud tradition of British boarding schools. Boarding at an ‘independent’ (let’s admit it, it’s a polite term for private and exclusive) schools nowadays costs about the same or more than the national average salary. People at these schools make up about 7% of the school population but are twenty to fifty times more likely to go to elite universities than the poorest pupils. They also dominate the professions. This is the sharpest end of our British unmeritocracy. ‘We’ have better chances in life because of who we are, who we know, how we talk, what we wear, how we act – it’s not that we’re any brighter. This implies (or proves?!) that my success is less down to hard work and overcoming hurdles than it is for many of my colleagues, and this means that I’m often loath to admit my educational background to them. Maybe I’m fooling myself, it’s probably obvious as soon as I open my mouth.

Within the literature on this topic there’s also a sense (or maybe it’s my sense) that vilifies the most affluent pupils: some of us are shamelessly entitled. In all honesty I probably was when I was younger – I had no idea how fortunate I was. In a sense I couldn’t have – I was cloistered (literally), and my social sphere was by and large removed from wider reality. Ten years ago I’d have despised the eighteen year-old me for being cluelessly stuck up and full of myself, but now I’d be more likely to try and enlighten the person I was. I’ve no right to feel sorry for myself, and I don’t. I can count my lucky stars in so many ways, but my lucky stars also make me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

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A luke warm date with the White Paper – condensing 83 pages into 2


My afternoon’s ‘entertainment’.

The much-anticipated Higher Education White Paper was released on Monday, sending the Twittersphere and other social media outlets into overload. It had been preceded by a Green (consultation) Paper in November last year, but the White Paper sets out what the government will actually be doing with/to HE over the next four years or so. The title ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ gives some of it away. There is a strong economic focus, more detail on the impending Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and a range of measures aimed at improving the information and options available to students. There is also a regulatory shake-up, which isn’t evident in the title; perhaps adding ‘Mergers and Acquisitions in Governance and Funding Structures’ to the end would have made it less catchy.

One of the major features of the White Paper is the facilitation of new entrants to the sector, subject to certain quality controls. There will be three levels of provider: ‘Approved (fee cap)’, ‘Approved’, and ‘Registered’. The former is essentially what a university is now – entitled to design and award its own degrees, undergraduate fees not significantly over £9,000, enrolling domestic students who can access government loans, and allowed to recruit non-EU students (who need Tier 4 visas). Registered providers can set fees wherever they like, but can only offer courses up to UK Level 4 (HNC/Degree Level C). They also can’t call themselves universities, meet tuition costs through state loans, or recruit anyone who needs a Tier 4 visa. Approved, as you might imagine, sits somewhere in the middle in terms of fees, loans and so on but they do have a University Title. Proponents of this opening up of the market say that competition keeps everyone on their toes and doing a good job, and while there will be casualties but this is healthy. Opponents would say that it devalues the status of the term university, undercuts the least prestigious universities, and offers opportunities for profit-oriented education providers to access state funding and cherry-pick lucrative and cost-effective degree subjects that are easier to market.

In terms of students themselves, there are four main developments.

  • The biggest noise within academia has been about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the new pedagogical sibling of the REF. This will be phased in over several years, becoming more comprehensive/complex (and, probably, expensive) in future iterations. Crucially, providers who achieve excellent or outstanding rating will be able to raise their fees in line with inflation. This has been an ongoing issue for universities under capped fee regimes as many fixed costs such as utilities have been creeping up. TEF is supposed to improve the pedagogical experience, but as with all metric-based systems, it also comes with its application of proxies and opportunities for being gamed by universities.
  • A second significant aspect for students is a greater availability of information on courses. This will include current Key Information Set (KIS) such as NSS scores and employability, but also long-term earnings data drawn from HMRC, degree outcomes (i.e.grades), the complaint levels, retention/drop-out rates, and more. Informed decision-making is a good thing, but as always the data made available shapes what students come to expect, and student happiness, or high employment – the latter often being dependent on a healthy economy – do not necessarily equate to a quality teaching experience.
  • Flexible pathways are being pushed more vigorously, to allow for changes between full- and part-time during degrees, and for more credit transfer to facilitate moves between universities. This was the aim of modularisation over 20 years ago, but inter-university mobility has never really taken off in the UK. There is an implication that you will be able to transfer between universities of different statuses, a sort of ‘trading up’ (or down, too), but it remains to be seen how warmly elite institutions welcome this in practice.
  • Finally, student loans will be made available for Master’s (from this year) and Doctoral and part-time students (both from 2018). This has been promised for some time and is long overdue as support for part-timers and scholarships for postgrads have been in short supply, but the total debt of someone who borrowed at the ‘full set’ over 7-9 years will be in excess of £70K.

As indicated earlier, there has been a significant reshuffle in who/what administers the system. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE, established in 1992) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA, since 2004) are being merged to create an Office for Students (OfS). OfS will be a champion of ‘competition, choice and the student interest’, allocating funding, providing degree awarding powers and university titles to new entrants, monitoring and publicising developments in student access, managing the Prevent (anti-terrorism) Strategy, and any additional functions the state deems appropriate. That is quite a portfolio. Intended to operate ‘at arm’s length’ form the government, its Chair, Chief Executive and non-executive board members will nonetheless be appointed by the government. The seven Research Councils, Innovate UK, and Research England are also being merged into UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). There will no doubt be some reshuffling and a flurry of new letterheads and logos, but given that eight of the nine of these organisations are already all based in the same building in Swindon, it’s not an altogether tectonic shift. The number of acronyms is shortening, but it might be difficult for those studying UK HE over time to remember them all.

While the White Paper does give a nod to the social value of degrees and graduates and promotes widening access, it does lean far more heavily on the combination of competition and metrics as a panacea for all of higher education’s supposed ills. It also continues to: apply the (oversimplified) metaphor of ‘consumers’ to students, frames degrees primarily as personal investments, and charges higher education overall with producing commercially exploitable knowledge in the interests of global economic competition. So it’s business as usual – pun intended – but takes us a number of steps further than we have been before.

Posted in Access to Uni, Employability, Globalisation, International Students, PhDs/Doctorates, Student Loans, Tuition Fees | 1 Comment

Are universities ‘dumbing down’?

Dumbing Down

Are university standards heading underground?

One of the things that has happened over the past 15 years or so is that the number of people going to university has risen very quickly. This is not just in the UK, but worldwide. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is part of a longer trend that combines two chief factors: more and more people finishing school and wanting to go to university, and the recent encouragement by governments buying into the idea that having higher numbers of graduates makes you internationally competitive. I’ve blogged about some of the downsides to this growth, such as how a larger student body is often funded (through tuition fees and loans) and the labour market becoming overcrowded. There are some serious pluses, too, such as having a greater proportion of society with critical thinking skills, and people who might previously have been excluded from higher education having more opportunities to go. Whether they actually go – and if so, where – is another matter.

There is also a sense in some of the literature, media, and discussions over the water cooler, that this widening access has given rise to another problem – that higher education is ‘dumbing down’. The accusation is that we’re expanding entry to degrees beyond the number of people who are ‘university material’. In order to make sure these people graduate, we’re bringing the water to the horse, not the horse to the water, by making degrees easier for these ‘less suitable’ students. (We do, after all, want their fee money and success/drop-out rates are calculated into some rankings.) This in turn means that degrees, particularly in some subjects and/or at less selective universities, aren’t as good, as academically rigorous, and overall this makes the sector look weaker as a whole. How well does this claim stand up?

First of all, it’s been very well documented that people from poorer backgrounds tend to do less well at school, so saying that these people simply aren’t of the right calibre is inaccurate. What we’re actually seeing here strikes me as a class issue – the dumbing down accusation is just outright snobbery. Higher education is no longer the exclusive preserve of the middle classes, and this means that their dominance of the professions is threatened. What happens when you have a greater number of graduates is known as ‘credential inflation’: degrees are not as rare as they used to be and as such their relative prestige falls. However, we can still see that the most academically selective universities are historically/by default also socially selective as they recruit largely from the middle classes. Rankings ‘prove’ that some universities are better than others, but as I’ve explored before, rankings are not necessarily valid measures of quality. Even so, employers rely on them and/or have long-standing connections with particular universities. This means that the more affluent students, attending higher status institutions (and with the money/connections to get internships) are more likely to do well on the job market. Working class kids coming through Oxbridge just don’t don’t have the same opportunities as their middle class Oxbridge peers, and so it continues, ‘down’ through the system. The middle class advantage is still there, but it is less clear than before and in some ways it’s under threat.

The second issue relates to the school system itself. In addition to the fact that disadvantaged kids have greater barriers to educational success, the way that teaching is changing may make the transition to university more difficult for the majority of students. There is perhaps always a sense of how school leavers were better in the ‘good old days’, but there might be an element of truth in this. Not brighter, of course, but perhaps more independent as learners. Because the school system has become heavily monitored, with schools being judged and compared (through league tables) on the basis of their results, teachers are driven to coach their students very carefully to do well in exams. This might not be good pedagogical practice, but it does get good results on paper – and is vital to schools’ continued survival. We see this in the literature on school policy, and I have a number of friends who are teachers – they have confirmed how this feeds into the classroom. What this means for universities is that first year students can be very dependent at the outset and find the relative lack of guidance and support in the university system quite unsettling. I’ve seen this first hand, and wondered if it was linked to the fact that some of my students don’t have great grades and so lack confidence, while others came though vocational rather than academic routes and might have been exposed to a more hands-on/applied learning and teaching culture. Even if we suspend our sociological hats for a minute and assume that grades accurately reflect ability, are students with better grades more independent? Having spoken to others who teach at universities that only really recruit the highest performing students, they report the same kinds of things. Their students are coming in very well equipped at memorisation and regurgitation, but not at finding and analysing information for themselves or managing their own timetables.

So, what do we do about this? Students may, through no fault of their own, be coming into university with less well-developed self-study skills than before. They are products of an education system which is being forced to school them in a way that looks effective from one perspective but might be counterproductive from another. I see my job with the first year students, almost more importantly than teaching the content, as slowly taking the stabilisers off their educational bikes so they can ride without them – and, increasingly, without me. This is not about dumbing down, but acknowledging where they’ve come from, signposting where we expect them to go, and supporting them in their intellectual development. Anyone can learn to find and assess information by themselves, synthesise it into well-structured essays or reports, and then start to conduct their own data gathering and analysis. Students nowadays may just be a little further from that in some ways than they used to be. Maybe.

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Isn’t asking for alumni donations, well, just weird?

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 01.18.56

A few months ago I had a phone call from a young medical student at the Oxbridge college I was affiliated to when I did my Master’s degree. We started having a nice chat, she asked me what I was up to now, and what kinds of things I’d been involved in through the college during my time there. Social events and casual football, in the main, I said, because I was mostly working myself ragged on my studies. And then came the shift, as she said, ‘well, I was wondering if you’d be in a position to make a donation, however small, to help the college support things like the sports teams and so on.’ That wasn’t verbatim, but you get the gist. She was clearly trained to look for a way in – it was very smooth. The short answer was no, I wasn’t in a position to donate, but the longer question was, well, why should I?

I’ll try and reason this through. If we pay for our degrees, the money we hand over is to cover the teaching, buildings, library facilities, and so on. If I study hard and then have a successful career, it may be partly due to what I learnt, but more due to further effort and experience gained beyond that degree. Why is the university due any additional payment? If I joined a gym, got ripped, and then found a partner on the basis of that (let’s ignore the shallowness in this instance, analogies are never perfect) would I go back to the gym and present them with a monetary token of my appreciation? I doubt it. So why are alumni donations somehow okay? Or are they not? One of the few places I’ve read about this is in a canonical book on higher education by the late American academic, Bill Readings. He argued that these donations are a mental sleight of hand, where you convince yourself that you’re donating to an entity that serves society, even though you’ve also had to pay for your degree.

I didn’t pay to do my undergrad degree, paid for my Master’s, and was then on a scholarship for my PhD. Am I duty-bound, in some way, to pay again? Who do I pay – is one level more deserving than the others? Where I was subsidised, it was taxpayer’s cash. I pay my taxes, and hopefully my degrees have made me a better teacher, a better researcher, a better citizen. Why should I pay more? I didn’t pay a bonus to the National Health Service when they wired my elbow back together last year, because it’s (still, just) a taxpayer supported system. We all pay, and the people who need help get it. Higher Education here used to be the same.

I’ve studied at three different universities – the first one wasn’t even a university yet. I wasn’t aware of any alumni donations in the mid 90s when I did that degree, and they’ve never contacted me to ask for anything. They never contact me at all, as it happens – perhaps because I was there before email really took off. I’ve just been browsing their website, though, and I can’t find anywhere to donate money. I then started my postgrad journey ten years later at somewhere that’s been a university for 800 years, and finished off at one that’s just over a century old. The ancient one is by far the worst offender in calling for cash. It started at graduation. Half of it was in Latin, surrounded by pomp and circumstance in ancient magnificence, with a plea at the end of the eminent speaker’s stirring words: ‘don’t forget us when you’re successful, remember to give back in return for what we’ve done for you’. It’s been relentless since them, particularly by email. ‘We just want to keep in touch, here’s what’s going on, network with other Oxbridgians in your area…and donate here.’ I’m sure they don’t really care how I am. I wish they’d leave out the warm, fuzzy subterfuge and cut to the chase.

There’s a (UK) history lesson in all of this. If we go back to universities before the Enlightenment, they were essentially training theologians, medics, and lawyers. They were extensions of the church, by and large, and churches have a long tradition of collecting funds to support their charitable work. (I’m not going to crack that topic open, it’s neither the time nor the place.) Back in the day, people would bequeath cash, trust funds, and land, to their alma mater. Some Oxbridge colleges are wealthier than others, largely depending on how old they are. I don’t know if this is an urban myth, but the story goes that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge – about 90 miles – without stepping off land owned by the colleges of the two universities. Whether those alumni were buying absolution, avoiding inheritance tax, or if it was genuine philanthropy, I don’t know, but it was somehow in keeping with the spirit of the thing. Excuse the pun.

If we fast forward to the 20th Century, then there were no tuition fees and the state supported the whole kit and caboodle. UK universities had – and still have, bar two – charitable, non-profit status. The idea was that academics can research/study important things, while graduates prop up society/The Empire, run the law courts, heal people, turn the wheels of commerce, and so on. Post WW2, the numbers of people studying rose because more people were completing secondary education and there was a rising demand for degree holders. The state paid because education was seen as a public good, a social benefit, and that made sense (it still does). This argument held until the late 90s when fees began to be introduced. Student numbers around then skyrocketed – encouraged by governments who saw the mass production of graduates as a (false, as it happens) way of creating economic growth, and those governments are now less willing to pay for it. It’s an investment in your future, they say. But why should we pay something back, or is it their investment in us, that we paid for? I’m confused.

Is it perhaps a tradition that’s lasted from medieval times, or is it something else? Some of this is certainly about competition. Top universities nowadays are scrabbling to maintain their national and international status, and funding is hard to come by. Every penny counts, and the ones with the fattest wallets have the best facilities, do the most research, attract the best academics/students, create the most spin-off companies and patents, and thus stay ahead of the competition. Tapping up the alumni is a lucrative way of fuelling that engine. The oldest universities are already the wealthiest anyway, and they’re the ones whose graduates have a better chance of being successful – and are therefore more able to donate back. Some universities in the US allocate a portion of their annual intake to the children of alumni and/or donors, which is about as unmeritocratic as it gets, but it makes good business sense. There’s a distinction in here somewhere between philanthropy in donating to good causes like important research and asking alumni to dip into their pockets periodically.  Getting the new business school or a professorship named after you is a vanity project – something else entirely. The state should, I think, support universities to the point where they don’t need to look elsewhere. I just can’t get my head around the moral logic of the thing, whichever way you slice it – let’s face it, alumni donations are just weird.

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